The Dyslexic Mind: What Motivates It?

From: Jennifer Johnson
Course: CD 169, Motivating Children and Adolescents in Educational Settings
College: San Jose State University
Instructor: Eugene Matusov
ChildrenObservations: No
Date: 22 May 1997
Time: 20:14:21
Remote Name:


Motivation in a child with a learning disability can be difficult. Dyslexia is a learning disability that is often characterized as a reading disability. It is a disability that, if not diagnosed, can be devastating to a child's self-esteem and motivation. This is because dyslexic children often feel dumb because they are not able to read or write at the same level as their class mates. This is because they are stuck in a world that their mind is not able to operate in the same manner as their classmates. Self-esteem and motivation are important in a child with dyslexia. It is important that they not feel like a failure just because their mind thinks in a different way. It is important to understand what dyslexia is in order to be able to understand the importance of motivation in a dyslexic child.

***A personal note -- This is a very personal topic for me because I am dyslexic. A great deal of what was written was my personal experience in what I went through and how I felt. Unfortunately nobody recognized that I had dyslexia until I was in college, and a professor of mine recognized some of the problems I was having. I had gone through school thinking I was dumb because I couldn’t read or write as well as the other kids. My hope is that this paper will help us realize, as future educators, that every child is unique and has different needs and ways of learning. It is important that we don’t lose sight of this because if we do there might be children out there who need special help, but instead some how fall through the cracks. It will be our task to help foster these needs so that each child is able to perform to their highest ability.


Some of the greatest minds we’ve know have one thing in common. These are names such as Alexander Graham Bell, Walt Disney, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Leonardo da Vinci. These are names that represent brilliant minds that have helped to shape the worlds of science, arts and politics. Names that often have the word ‘genius’ associated with them. These are all people who also had a learning disability called dyslexia. Dyslexia is a learning disability that affects approximately 20% of the population in the United States. Seventy-five percent of those affected are boys. It is a disability that is often misunderstood. Children (and adults) who have not yet been diagnosed with dyslexia are often labeled lazy, unintelligent, unmotivated and/or difficult. This is because these are children who often have to fail in school before they are diagnosed as dyslexic. In this paper I will be looking at what dyslexia is and how it can affect a child’s self-image, self-esteem and motivation.

It is difficult to come up with just one definition for dyslexia. This is because no two dyslexics have the same set of symptoms. Dys, means trouble with, and lex means words, so dyslexia causes trouble with words. Dyslexia is a disability in the area of reading. A definition by duPont Hospital’s Child Health Talk web page states that "Dyslexia is defined as a disability that is manifested by a significant discrepancy between intellectual functioning and reading and/or writing skills. The discrepancy is not the result of educational or environment factors, but is presumed to be inherent" ( According to the Learning Disabilities Association, dyslexia is often characterized by problems in learning how "to translate printed words into spoken words, with ease. Problems with word identification and/or reading comprehension" ( The best way to define dyslexia is by looking at some of it’s characteristics, these include things such as (referenced from The Orton Dyslexia Society’s web page,

The hallmark characteristic of dyslexia is reversing or inverting letters such as ‘b’ and ‘d’, ‘p’ and ‘q’, ‘m’ and ‘w’, and ‘6’ and ‘9’. Dyslexics also have a difficult time recognizing letters with in a word. For example, ‘was’ might become ‘saw’ or ‘nuclear’ might become ‘unclear’.

Dyslexic people are often very gifted people who has an average to above average IQ. For some reason there is a gap between their IQ and school achievement. They have trouble translating language into thought and thought into language. According to Priscilla Vail, people with dyslexia struggle in the two-dimensional world which includes reading, handwriting, spelling and pencil/paper mathematics 1990). Dyslexics are much better three-dimensional thinkers. They are visual thinkers who are intuitive and highly creative. They are people who think in pictures. They have an easy time working out problems that can be pictured or manipulated in a three-dimensional way. A large number of athletes are dyslexic, they can easily picture the playing field in their mind.

Dyslexia occurs in all different groups, regardless of age, race and/or income. However, dyslexia does seem to favor boys over girls, boys are 4 times more likely to be dyslexic than are girls. This disability is found in every Western culture that uses an alphabet. China is the only country where dyslexia does not occur. That is because China’s alphabet is based on pictoral symbols.

Dyslexics have a great deal of difficulty with words. Learning to recognize and read words causes a great amount of trouble. This is because the mind of a dyslexic child has a difficult time learning words just by the sight of the words. Word recognition does not come automatically. Katrina de Hirsch, a pioneer in dyslexia, says that trying to teach a dyslexic person words by sight is like trying to make a crisp imprint in very loose sand (Priscilla Vail). Ron Davis has done a great amount of research in this area. He believes that dyslexics don’t have a lot of trouble with words that describe real things. For someone who is dyslexic, seeing a picture of a word is it’s meaning (1994). This is because they don’t recognize words by the letters that make up the words. Instead they recognize words by the picture that represents that word. This is why dyslexics have so much trouble with words such as a, and, and the. There aren’t pictures that a dyslexic can associate with these words. Ron Davis calls these ‘trigger words’. ‘Trigger words’ are words that have abstract meanings and/or a number of different meanings. Words such as ‘the’ cause the mental image the dyslexic has to go blank. There are more than 200 of these words in the English language. The problem dyslexics have is when all these different words are combined in a sentence. This is where reading becomes difficult. Every time a dyslexic comes across a trigger word they don’t have a picture for, their mind goes blank. This may not seem like a difficult problem. Because after all it shouldn’t be too hard to piece together those words. However, from a dyslexic’s point of view it is like only being able to hear every third word someone is saying. When a dyslexic is reading they end up with a series of unrelated pictures with blanks in between them. This will often lead to what Ron Davis refers to a disorientation. The message that the person is trying to get from the sentence gets distorted (1994). Because of this, a dyslexic person might have to read a sentence or passage more than once.

Dyslexia is a learning disability that can have a profound impact on a child self-image, self-esteem and motivation. A dyslexic child often feels stupid because they are not able to keep up with the reading skills of their classmates. Since they are so much slower and have a much more difficult time, they feel dumb. This has a tremendous impact on a child’s self-esteem. This is because the child feels like they are constantly failing. School for a dyslexic child can be a nightmare filled with a great deal of frustration. Schools are set up in a more two-dimensional manner. There is a tremendous emphasis placed on the reading, writing and arithmetic. These are all areas that a dyslexic child has a great amount of difficulty with. The child is forced to learn in a way that his/her brain is not able to function in. A classroom environment that is set up like this has a tremendous affect on the child’s self-esteem. The child is competing in a world in which his/her mind is not able to function. The child then ends up feeling like a failure, like they’re stupid. Soon they have very little, if any, self-esteem and are not at all motivated to even try and learn what the class is working on.

One of the things that often has an impact on a child’s self-esteem is the fact that many perceive them to be lazy or slow. They are constantly being told that they should just try harder, if they try harder they will be able to do it. According to Project ASSIST, "the dyslexic child’s mind is working harder to fill in the gaps between what he actually sees, hears and feels in the outer world, and how he thinks about these things in his head and puts them into words. The dyslexic mind needs more help in sorting, recognizing, and organizing the raw materials of language for reading and spelling". Things that can help dyslexic children include things such as teaching in small units, over-teaching and using multi-sensory methods of instruction. The child is better able to concentrate on small bits of information. If the child is overwhelmed with too much information they begin to feel confused and disoriented, and then frustrated. Over-teaching is important because it helps to reinforce what is being taught. Dyslexics have a difficult time retaining information, and so repetition helps the child hold on to the information. Presenting information in a multi-sensory manner is very necessary for dyslexic children. They are three-dimensional thinkers, always thinking in pictures. Therefore, being able to see something along with the verbal instruction in vital for a dyslexic child. They need to be able to see and touch and hear. Dyslexic children really uses all their senses in order to be able to take in what they are trying to learn.

Dr. Samuel T. Orton was one of the great pioneers in the area of dyslexia. He pioneered a teaching method that is still greatly used today. (Information regarding this method can be found on the Orton Dyslexia Society web page, They stress the importance of using sight, sound, touch and movement when teaching children language. According to the society language must be taught "bit by bit, in a sequential, cumulative way. There must be systematic teaching of the rules governing written language".

When discussing dyslexia in children is it important to talk about motivation. Motivation is very closely tied in with a child’s self-esteem. If a child isn’t feeling very good about themselves then they aren’t going to be very motivated to learn. They will not be motivated to read, write or participate in class. Motivation and self-esteem are very vulnerable in a dyslexic child because it is so easy for the child to feel like a failure. It is important for both the parents and the teacher to foster motivation in the child. The child needs to be encouraged in what they are trying to learn. They need to be reinforced for what they have learn and not compared to other students. The child needs to have goals set for them that are realist and achievable. Having realistic goals will help the child feel like they are really able to accomplish something. Individual goals don’t make the child feel like they are being compared to others, instead they feel like they are being judged on their own abilities. If a child is motivated to learn they will feel good about themselves and their abilities to learn.


Project ASSIST, What is Dyslexia,

The Orton Dyslexia Society,

Davis Dyslexia Association International, Dyslexia: The Gift,

Learning Disabilities Association,

duPont Hospital for Children, Child Health Talk,

Vail, P.L., About Dyslexia, Modern Learning Press, Rosemont, NJ, 1990.

Davis, R.D., The Gift of Dyslexia, Ability Workshop Press, Burlingame, CA, 1994.

Last modified August 06, 2015